At the beginning of World War One , British Army banned short people from serving. The ban also applied in its regiments in the British empire such as the Kings African Rifles in Africa.
Throughout history tall soldiers have often been prized . King Frederick l , recruited giants for his Potsdam Grenadier guards. In Africa the British recruited the likes of Mulinge and Idi Amin Dada because of their imposing heights to serve in the Kings African Rifles .
When World War l broke out, the minimum height of joining the army was 5ft 3in. Thousands of men who wanted to fight in the war were turned away at recruitment centres.
Things began changing when one man in the North of England who had been rejected for being too short got annoyed and decided to fight anyone to prove that height did not matter on the battlefield.
His local MP heard about his frustration and wrote to the War Office requesting for short people to be allowed to serve. The War Office agreed but on condition that short men should have their own battalions called “Bantam Battalions”.
Soon 3000, men who had been barred from the army were selected to join these special battalions. By the end of World War l, 29 Bantam battalions with a total of 30,000 short soldiers had been raised in the British Army. These Special British Army battalions only existed in Britain and Canada.
These short soldiers ,however, gained the reputation of being too aggressive and quarrelsome. Around Scotland they became known as the Devil dwarfs because of their frequent bar brawls. One author writing about the Bantam battalions said: “Their quarrelsome reputation was legendary.”
Scholars describe it as the Napoleon Complex, the syndrome where pint-sized men overcompensate for their lack of stature with blustering self-importance, jealousy and aggression. It is named after Napoleon who was one of the greatest military leaders despite his height, and was also short tempered.
Stalin was also said to suffer from “Napoleon Complex” as did Mussolini and Attila the Hun.
In the British Army the performance of Bantams (short soldiers) on the battlefield was mixed. One commanding officer said ” For all their recalcitrance, they had proved to be readily trained into smart soldiers on the barrack Square and assault course.
He cited a raid on a German trench by the Bantams in June 1916 that resulted in the death of 30 Germans and the capture of Maxim heavy machine gun.
However, the battle of Somme really brough into question the morale, physical abilities and the credibility of the Bantams. During the battle 26 Bantams were sentenced to death for being cowards and for abandoning their defence posts when war became intense.
The end of the battle marked the end of the experiment on whether short people were capable of serving in the military. The Bantams were re-examined by medical experts and those viewed as fit to serve were merged with regular units to serve alongside tall men.
Surprisingly when the Bantams were mixed with regular soldiers , the success rate on the battlefield climbed to 60% in the Hundred Days offensive of 1918.
After the war, many Bantams were transferred to tunnelling and tank units where being short was an advantage.
Today short soldiers serve in the militaries all over the word and have proved to be effective just as their tall colleagues.
In a marching formation, they are normally used as markers, I.e they are not placed in the middle but at the extreme end. The same applies to very tall soldiers .
Odhiambo Levin Opiyo is a Reseacher and Historian, write from Nairobi , Republic of Kenya .